Open Source Intel Helps Reveal US Spy Sat Capabilities

On the 30th August 2019, the President of the United States tweeted an image of an Iranian spaceport, making note of the recent failed Safir launch at the site. The release of such an image prompted raised eyebrows, given the high resolution of the image, and that it appeared to be a smartphone photo taken of a classified intelligence document.

Inquisitive minds quickly leapt on the photo, seeking to determine the source of the image. While some speculated that it may have been taken from a surveillance aircraft or drone, analysis by the satellite tracking community disagreed.

A comparison of the actual image, top, and a simulation of what a shot from USA 224 would look like. Ignore the shadows, which are from an image taken at a different time of day. Note the very similar orientation of the features of the launchpad.

The angle of shadows in the image was used to determine the approximate time that the image was taken. Additionally, through careful comparison with existing satellite images from Google Maps, it was possible to infer the azimuth and elevation of the camera. Positions of military satellites aren’t made public, but amateur tracking networks had data placing satellite USA 224 at a similar azimuth and elevation around the time the image was taken.

With both the timing and positioning pointing to USA 224, evidence seems conclusive that this KH-11 satellite was responsible for taking the image. The last confirmed public leak of a Keyhole surveillance image was in 1984, making this an especially rare occurrence. Such leaks are often frowned upon in the intelligence community, as nation states prefer to keep surveillance capabilities close to their chest. The Safir images suggest that USA 224 has a resolution of 10cm per pixel or better – information that could prove useful to other intelligence organisations.

It’s not the first time we’ve covered formerly classified information, either – this teardown of a Soviet missile seeker bore many secrets.

28 thoughts on “Open Source Intel Helps Reveal US Spy Sat Capabilities

  1. “The release of such an image prompted raised eyebrows, given the high resolution of the image, and that it appeared to be a smartphone photo taken of a classified intelligence document.”

    Smartphones may end up leaking more than Snowden, especially in the hands of those who don’t understand “classified”.

    1. “zero prosecution”??? So far there have been eight convictions, and thirty one indictments. Do you also apply such rigor in your engineering analysis? When you say “there are zero problems with my design” how can we believe you?

      1. Yeah, no, you can dance around it as much as you want, the chant is “lock her up” and she isn’t. Searching the wikipedia page on the subject returns zero results for “conviction”, I’m sure you’ll be able to find satellite stuff, but you’d be ignoring the core issue.


        Many of the convictions were based on evidence that the guilty parties failed to destroy “responsibly”, so you are telling us that these people were all irresponsible to begin with.

        You said: “Searching the wikipedia page on the subject returns zero results for “conviction”, when did this become the standard for truth? Why don’t you actually read the Mueller report? Again and again you exhibit poor reasoning skills.

        We can also add “moving the goalposts” to your list of issues…

      3. I almost missed the part where you referred to Trump’s campaign manager, his personal lawyer, and his National Security adviser (all currently in prison on felony charges) as “satellite stuff”.

      4. The issue here is “the Trump administration has no ability to keep secrets”. All the criminal convictions are the result of sloppy and ineffective secret-keeping. Flynn is a bad liar, Manafort is incompetent at cover-ups, Cohen kept his client’s secrets stashed in a storage locker instead of shredding them. Trump trusted all of them!

  2. The black box in the top left corner is aligned with the picture dimensions itself, as opposed to the rest of the pic, which is at a small angle.
    This tells us that the picture has been redacted after the initial pic has been made, thus this was released, not leaked.

    1. The trouble is that for all its awful downsides, like denying spae travel to the next several generations, kessler syndrome would not have the upside of knocking out facebook. More than 90% of internet traffic travels along subsea fibre cables, very, very little of it at present goes through orbiting satellites.

    2. Unsure if my last attempt to comment got through properly:
      For all the horrors of kessler syndrome, such as denying the next several generations any hope of expanding man’s presence away from earth’s surface, the loss of facebook would not be an upside. Over 90% of internet traffic goes through fibre cabels beneath the oceans, barely any goes via relay satellites. Kessler syndrome won’t cause the tragedy of losing the internet in general nor the triumph of losing facebook specifically.

  3. *Yawn*
    The US has only been capable of providing images like this from anywhere in the world since the 1960’s, and this capability has been public information for almost as long (I read about it when looking up info on the SR-71 as a kid in the 1980s). Why is anyone surprised now?

    That being said, this is a very interesting image, I’m glad President Trump chose to release it.

    1. Well, even when everybody already knows that you are peeing in the public pool it is still slightly embarrassing when there is photographic evidence of it. The intelligence community likes their cards close to their chests.

    2. There’s a functional difference between a spy plane at 85,000ft taking film photographs once every few days and a digital imaging satellite at 928,478ft capable of taking photographs every hour and a half.

    3. I believe the issue at hand here isn’t that we have spy satellites capable of taking high quality photographs (which is public knowledge). The issue is that this actually allowed us to identify a particular satellite (USA 224) as a photography-enabled spy satellite and the approximate level of detail that particular satellite is capable of.

  4. It’s been known for decades that there are a large number of satellites up there with one-meter diameter telescope mirrors that are pointing towards the earth; a bit of math can show that under ideal circumstances, about 10 cm resolution is possible and by combining multiple images and using various image processing techniques, that can be enhanced further.

  5. The “can see a mobile phone sized object from space” capability was already publicly documented, this analysis is just a exercise in self aggrandisement and interlectual masterbation.

    1. Yep, I see it too… looks like the silhouette of someone standing in front of the image and taking a picture… with the shiny spot about where the flash of a smartphone would be…

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